a heart-stopping love story
Today the blackbirds are watching us from the power line. I don’t like them watching me. Momma says blackbirds are not really birds, they are people who have died and come back as birds. They want to see what happens to us after they are gone.
“In Fireless, every creature knows all about you, even birds,” Momma says. “Even spiders.”
Fireless is the country where we live. Every day Momma teaches us something new about it. Today she is carrying a blue mason jar from the kitchen. I take her other hand, and we walk past the well pump, Tan and Ninny and Momma and me. A little cloud of gnats is floating over the pail Momma hung up that she said is just for pretend. I wish the water in the pail wasn’t pretend water. But I can get some at the creek.
The grass in the yard is long. Daddy mows it, but Daddy has been away a long time. He said he will be back in time for my birthday. I’m going to be seven years old. I wonder what he will bring me?
It’s hard to walk through the long grass. The grass holds the ground so tightly—I know this grass—you can’t dig in it unless you’re really big and strong like Momma. I have tried. All you can do is cut it with the shovel into little grassy fingernails.
I can hear last year’s pig corn rattling in the field. But we don’t go that way. We turn and walk up the drive to where the pin oak trees run beside the creek. The creek bank is not very steep, but we walk slowly down to the water so Ninny won’t fall. Momma lets go of my hand and takes her big shoes off and puts them on the bank. She rolls her jeans up and steps out into the water.
“I’m the Queen,” she says, holding her long arms up. “The Queen of Fireless.” The jar is very blue in the sun. Momma puts her arms down and looks at me. “You are my maidservant, Shine. All that we survey are our subjects. Even the crawdads. Come and see them.”
Shine is my name in Fireless. Tan and Ninny are Fireless names, too. Tan and me help Ninny take her shoes off, then we take our shoes off and go into the water, too. The water is very cold. But it feels good. Momma bends down in the creek and dips her big knees in the water, kneeling to where her face is just as high as my face.
“Let me show you how to catch crawdads, Shine,” she says. She pushes the Mason jar under the water, letting it fill, blub blub blub. “You put the jar behind them. Then you scare them”—she reaches out with her big hand, fingers spread, fingernails shiny in the wet sunshine, and the crawdads scoot backwards, right into the jar.
Tan laughs so hard, she just about pees herself. “See?” Momma says, holding the jar up with the crawdads. “Everything knows about fear.”
And it’s true. I’ve seen spiders, the smallest spider you can see, little bitty red ones smaller than a freckle, they run like crazy if you put your finger down next to them. Their fear is as big as any fear in the whole world.
When she talks about Fireless, I watch Momma’s eyes. That is the way you tell if it’s going to be okay. If her eyes change, that’s when I get afraid. I hope it’s going to be okay today. I keep looking at her eyes as she crawls around in the creek with the jar. Momma is good at scaring things.